A week long in Avignon
24 Jul 2007
|WARNING WARNING WARNING!
We spent a full week in Avignon, and I'm writing this with far too much spare time on my hands, while laid up with a broken foot in Lucca - so it's a pretty long read!
Do not attempt to read this post unless you have some spare time up your sleeve!
We left Valencia and Spain on a Tuesday, contemplating the huge train travel day ahead of us. I stirred Ian up saying that part of me was relieved to be leaving Spain - while I've absolutely loved some parts, the country and the train system have had an edge to it that made me quite uncomfortable - no doubt you got that from the Madrid post at least Perhaps I spent too long in safe and sanitized Sweden and it's not that bad?
Regardless... we started our travel day with a walk in the dark to the train station - we had a 6.30am train from Valencia to Barcelona. We had to ponder on our walk if a fellow traveler was stupid or brave - we met a young asian woman walking alone asking for directions to the metro to catch an early flight. She latched on to us as a better alternative than the local man with a guitar strung on his back who looked like he hadn't been home yet that night. Unfortunately we couldn't help her - we didn't even know Valencia had a metro!
After our trek to Barcelona, it was a change to another train to get to the French border at Cerbere. This would have been quite the uneventful trip, but for the fact I made the mistake of relying on using the toilet on the train for the impending call of nature when leaving Barcelona. Murphy's Law at its best. The one toilet we could access from our carriage was locked. After some time, Ian enlisted the help of the conductor who proceeded to open it, but it had been locked for a reason as it was unflushable and the contents in the bowl looked like they could transmit any manner of disgusting disease, so I declined the opportunity to use it. Facing several more hours on the train, my need was increasingly desperate. In the end, we had to hassle the conductor again to help us skip carriages at the next stop to use a different toilet, which was also on the disgusting end of the scale, but useable under the circumstances! Ian and I have discussed at times how addressing toilet going needs can be such a large feature of a day in the life of a traveler - a necessary evil I guess. We've also learnt our lesson on coming prepared - with BYO paper and sanitary hand wipes always at hand.
We completed our travel day with several more hours on a very hot train from Cerbere to Avignon - we couldn't wait to have showers once we arrived after such a long day on the move. The trip reminded me though how much I love the French countryside - the stone houses, the green and yellow fields and hills, the green rivers - it's got to be my favourite outside Australia.
On arriving in Avignon, we discovered our apartment owner was a late middle aged, eccentric property baron - Jacqueline. Our apartment was just beautiful with its own private balcony overlooking the prettiest pool. The only shock was the expectation that we'd clean the place before leaving - for the price we paid for the week this seemed a bit rich (also the fact this wasn't mentioned in the booking process). Even so, it was kitted out with every comfort and even wi-fi which was an unexpected bonus. Wi-fi is pretty much everywhere in the accommodation in Europe now - fantastic when you've gone to the trouble to lug your 5kg laptop everywhere!
I also need to mention the cable TV. We didn't know how spoiled we were in Sweden with all our favourite shows and movies at the cinema in English with Swedish subtitles. Since Swedes are quite the small population and are excellent English speakers also, they don't bother dubbing over the English shows. Germany, France and Italy are a whole different matter though - everything is dubbed over, with the only exceptions usually CNN, BBC and perhaps a Euronews channel in English. The reason I make mention of the cable in Avignon though was it was the first place we'd stayed to have hundreds of channels, and we flicked through every single one of them searching in vain for at least one English movie channel. We did have a couple of music channels which made for a change, but no movies. However, in this search, you can imagine the irony of finding the last thirty or so channels seemed to cater to every other single language option with Saudi, Mongolian, Zimbabwe etc. you name it - TV channels of all origins. The biggest surprise for we 'western allies' though was finding Al Jazeera there for our viewing pleasure! We quickly flicked past it though in case good ole George W. was monitoring our TV viewing and put us on his black list - ha ha - it's almost that bad isn't it? Okay, back to the serious business of travel and our first night in Avignon.
It was 8pm once we found ourselves without the company of our friendly host Jacqueline, and we were starving - so headed into town to seek out dinner provisions. Avignon was alive with its yearly theatre festival - street stalls selling collector's items, theatre posters up literally everywhere and sprukers handing out brochures to anyone who'd take them. The competition to put bums on seats was fierce with over 800 shows on offer over three weeks! There was also the more elaborate advertisements involving cast members in full costume and character out and about on the streets - from men in angel's wings, people dressed up as every imaginable African jungle animal, and even a lady singing opera accompanied by a cellist on the back of a convertible zipping round town. You never knew what you'd see or hear next!
There were also the street performers - we saw acrobatics on a bamboo pole, comedy acts and even one man who called himself the traveling pianist with his red baby grand parked on the main street. Of course, the downside to all this fun is the lowest common denominator it tends to attract, and I lost count of the number of times we had beggars push pieces of paper into our hands (no doubt telling their tale of woe) and expecting a donation to their cause in return for their trouble. They weren't as scary as one lady beggar we encountered though. One afternoon while walking home past the bus station, this haggard old lady rushed angrily at us, clearly thinking this would be an effective opener to ask for money to feed herself (more likely to keep her blood alcohol level up, but let's give her the benefit of the doubt). Ian was very accurate in commenting later that she was like the crazy cat lady in Simpsons.
Something else I'll never forget about this week in Avignon was the gypsies - not dirty gypseys, but nomadic folk who at least seemed to be trying to earn an honest dollar. They reminded me of a far less romantic version of Johnny Depp in Chocolat. But why these groups of gypseys stood out, was the fact they were quite the menagerie with all of them having multiple big dogs as companions. Anyway, tracking back off this tangent, we found a supermarket still open and had a great dinner compliments of chef Ian - we didn't sit down to eat until 10pm, but somehow after Spain that was beginning to feel normal!
The next morning after a sleep in we followed a hot tip from Jacqueline that the Provence markets were on in St. Remy that day - a little village a short bus trip away. We couldn't believe our lucky timing to stroll straight onto a bus that was leaving one minute later and enjoyed the trip through other small villages and tree lined roads. We knew we'd arrived at St. Remy once we hit a huge traffic jam in this small place and of course soon saw the canopies of the market stalls. These markets were huge - they spanned tentacles out through the streets of St Remy and while some areas were easy enough to stroll around, others found you in a human tide and there was little to do but go with the flow. Food was obviously a feature and we collected the best dried herbs - the scent of the thyme was intoxicating! We also got more great fresh fruit and veg and a bottle of the local red to enjoy later, plus a spicy little herbed, cured sausage - salcisson - that we'd use in moderation for a flavour punch in our meals over the week.
Lavender of course is a huge feature here and you could buy every imaginable product derived from it. The pottery of the area is bright and beautiful in burnt yellows, oranges and reds with green detail. It's a pity we're already carrying as much as we can handle as it would be lovely to bring some home.
It was surprising to us to discover that St. Remy observed a siesta - or at least a long, slow lunch - with everything but the cafes and brasseries closing down and folding up almost instantly at 12.30. So too, the bus timetable stopped for lunch so we found ourselves wandering through the quiet streets of St. Remy till the next one at 3.30pm. We'd already had lunch from a market stall so the long slow lunch wasn't an option for us!
We're finding the best place to be in the afternoons is in the aircon of our apartment, so we had a restful afternoon and ventured back into town after dinner to find the place alive again and the sun setting beautifully casting a golden glow over the Dom Cathedral and Palais de Papes. Ian was doing well remembering his bearings from our few hours here in Avignon four years ago and I was gradually finding it familiar again also.
Since Jacqueline's tip for St. Remy was so successful, we followed her second and ventured forth to another market the next day - this time at Villeneuve across the river from Avignon. Avignon as you may be aware was the home of the Pope during the Great Schism, and we discovered Villeneuve was where most of the cardinals and other religious folk lived - don't ask me why they didn't live in Avignon itself.
So Villeneuve was in walking distance and we planned to get up extra early to enjoy a cool walk over the river at sunrise. This was such a perfect plan as we saw Avignon in its quiet, industrious hour of the morning before the crowds and witnessed the most beautiful, breathtaking sunrise over the St. Beziere's Bridge and Avignon town walls and Palace - the photos from this morning are probably among our favourite all trip. St Beziere's Bridge is quite famous - it's a medieval structure that originally consisted of 22 spans. It now only has 4 spans left after successive crumblings. I think the last one was a big flood which washed half of it away. Makes for nice photography anyway :-)
Now I mentioned earlier that toilet needs can be a feature of the traveling day. Well, on arrival at Villeneuve we saw the markets still in the process of setting up, so we wandered into the village centre for a coffee and to use a toilet. There was only one brasserie open at this hour, so Ian ordered coffee and I took my leave to use the facilities. It was then my worst fears became reality, as I stood with a need that couldn't be ignored, and my only option being a Turkish squat toilet. For those of you lucky enough to have never encountered one of these babies, it is basically a glorified porcelain hole in the floor with two platforms for your feet in front. I spent a few minutes assessing the situation and the physics of a successful visit to this style of toilet then gave it a go hoping for the best. You can imagine how relieved I was to come out the other end with clothing and shoes unscathed! Don't ask me how the old folk manage these toilets with dickie knees and weak muscles! The ironic thing is though it's an exceptionally hygienic, clean version of a public toilet, so that's one thing I guess.
The markets at Villeneuve were smaller than St. Remy but had great produce and we joined the savvy locals being there early for the best of it. We left some time later with a new market bag holding all our goodies and carrying one handle each, to explore the little village a bit more.
The highlight of our explorations was stumbling on an olive oil factory and shop in the back streets. Some good olive oil would be a great addition to our cooking basics. However, we were ten minutes before opening time so milled around the courtyard. Ian was taking a close look at the olive tree here with tiny green olives all over it, when an old man surfaced from the factory and in broken French/English warned him not to eat the olives. We're not sure if he was protecting his precious olives or Ian's health, but Ian was quite indignant that this man should think he was stupid enough to try to eat a very green and unripe olive. The old man then disappeared back into the dark recesses of the factory.
Some time later, he came back out again and began to talk to us - the fact we couldn't understand what he was saying didn't seem to deter him. Eventually after enough repetition, it became clear to us that his family ran the shop and they weren't here yet. In fact, despite the sign indicating it opened at 9am every day, we interpreted from him that 9am was merely a loose approximation, and it really opened whenever the family arrived... he managed to describe that Sunday was the only day you could be sure to find the store open at all (BTW - it wasn't Sunday). We had to laugh at this little exchange as we'd both recently read a book written by an English man who moved to Provence. He had described in minute detail this kind of encounter with the locals, where they waggle their hand at varying heights and intensities when giving time estimates. Depending on the height and intensity of waggle, you could interpret how large a tolerance to apply to their promised timing. Based on the author's description we thought we could be waiting a long time so decided it was best to be on our way.
The other highlight of this Thursday in Avignon was a much needed visit to a hairdresser. Despite the store advertising that English was spoken this was not the case with my hairdresser and Ian and I managed to purvey my haircut wishes to the lady through pictures and the help of a fellow customer. There were some nervous moments later in the cutting process when she resorted to scissor hand sign language to ask me if I was happy or wanted it a bit shorter. But in the end, she was very talented and I came away feeling wonderful and chic with my French haircut. It was only after this that Ian and I started being handed the theatre brochures, so we thought I must have looked very local with my new do.
After all this tripping away to markets we had to spend some time exploring Avignon itself, and as I alluded to already, the main event in town is the Palais de Papes - or Palace of the Popes which was built progressively by a series of Popes when they occupied Avignon in the middle ages. It is a huge, sprawling, medieval complex of great halls, chambers, chapels and courtyards, and of course adjacent to the Palace is the elaborate Dom Cathedral with the gold statue of Mary gleaming on top of the spire. This was one of the best 'monument' tours we did with its self-paced approach with audio guide in hand to give you all the important history of the place.
The favourite part of the tour for both of us was probably the kitchen and great dining hall description. We heard how the Palace had a kitchen garden and general menagerie and could picture the great roasting spits below the giant chimney in the kitchen. We were surprised to hear that the Pope himself was the only one allowed to use a knife while eating - an ivory handled knife at that. We assumed this was for fear of assassination attempts at feasts. Of course, this meant someone had to cut the rest of the food and this was the role of the 'Grand Carver' - no joke - there was a man in the kitchen staff - the only other allowed to use a knife whose title was 'the Grand Carver'!
The good Catholic folk at the Palais de Papes know what's needed after so many hours of culture and history, and have designed the tour with a visit to their wine cellar as the second last thing on the way out (the souvenir shop is the very last stop). We laid down a small sum for Ian to taste some of the local wines and found this to be the best wine tasting we've had so far in Europe. The man guiding us through the tasting was very friendly and informative (but not pretentious) and even let us taste a few more than is advertised for the price. The only shame of course is tasting a few wines that are exceptionally good and predictably, well out of our price range. There was one particular red that Ian salivated over and my favourite was a beautiful honey flavoured white. In the end we settled on some also nice, but more modestly priced wines to take home and enjoy.
We also enjoyed multiple visits to the covered markets in Avignon and a great little coffee shop in the shade at a merger of two streets. We loved watching the locals go about their day while we sipped on our coffee and ate their lovely warm chocolate brioche pastries. One of my favourite pastimes over here in Europe is watching the gorgeous little dogs follow their masters loyally, unleashed and everywhere! It's hilarious to see a dog perched up at a seat in a coffee shop or my particular favourite of cute little dogs tucked in overnight bags sitting on the train. We recently checked QR long distance trains for our return home and thinking of little Angus, but only service dogs are allowed on the trains back home - such a stark contrast in cultures when it comes to the mutts. Admittedly, the dogs we've seen here in Europe are almost without exception extremely well trained and behaved, which is not always the case with our Aussie pups which are more used to being confined to their backyard domains.
Aside from our fun in Avignon, we'd also planned a day trip to Marseille and Aix - both only an hour or so away on the train or bus. We pictured ourselves in Marseille lunching on the local specialty boullabaise and laughing at the holiday makers crowding on the beach, but it wasn't to be. I nearly choked when we asked the ticket lady at the train station for the cost of a return trip to Marseille on one of the local trains. We had decided to check with the ticket office when we thought the 32 euro quoted by the ticket machine was crazy steep for such a short trip, and figured we'd done something wrong. As it turned out, we had - our price was only for one person! So needless to say, with the cost of getting there exceeding our daily budget, we gave the trip to Marseille a swerve and decided we'd try the bus the following day.
The following day came and we endured another early morning to make the suitable bus. We were beginning to doubt if it would ever arrive after it was already half an hour past schedule, but in the end it did arrive and again my jaw had to be scraped up off the bitumen when the cost of the bus was only a few euro cheaper than the train! We couldn't believe this as our trip to St. Remy earlier in the week (about half an hour away) was only four euro each. But we quickly figured out there are local buses subsidized by the council to certain destinations, and anything else was going to be beyond our imaginings. Our plan to visit Aix fell into this same crazy overpriced scheme, so we went home to consider where we could go on the local buses to explore more of the surrounding area.
We set our sights on a tiny village called Bedarides which was hosting a market the following day - as good a reason as any to choose this as our destination. We had to chuckle when we arrived though after the immense proportions of the St. Remy markets, to see this tiny little three stall farmers' markets in what was a quaint but quite small village. So we figured we'd been to the biggest and the smallest markets on offer in Provence! I'm being a little unfair in my description though - it wasn't only fruit and veg. There was one stall selling the latest couture... well farmer's overalls anyway :-) We managed to pick up some good fruit and veg straight from the farmers, but very soon after there was little to entertain us here. So we checked our bus timetable and caught another heading a bit futher away to a place called Orange where we had a nice lunch then hightailed it back home.
And that's about it for Avignon. Congratulations if you made it to the end of this long tale :-) Au revoir!